The Ancients (History Hit) Well, it’s heading up to Christmas, so how about a podcast about King Herod? This episode features Holy Land archaeologist Dr Jodi Magness who, as you might expect, takes a rather archaeological approach. However, there’s not much in written sources to go on anyway- just that mention in Matthew alone (not the other gospels) and Josephus, who was born thirty years after Herod died. Herod was half-Jewish through his father (not his mother) and his family had been forcibly converted. There is no evidence that the Massacre of the Innocents ever occurred and it is not recorded elsewhere, although Herod was ruthless with his brothers-in-law and sons and executed them for fear that they would challenge him. He was a great builder in the Roman tradition. He built Caesarea (where they found a whole lot of artefacts recently) and built his own mausoleum at Herodium. It was uncovered in 2007 Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who had been working on the site for forty years, although there is now doubt whether Herod himself is buried there. (Actually, I read elsewhere that this excavation is contested by the Palestinian National Authority). Herod tried by bolster his Jewish legitimacy by rebuilding the Temple, and by placing Herodium close to Bethlehem, in the hope that he could share some of King David’s glory.
Democracy Sausage In this final episode for 2021, The second (and possibly last) Annual Democracy Sausage Awards Mark Kenny is joined by historians Frank Bongiorno and Chris Wallace, and fellow ANU researcher Marija Taflaga. The episode is not a very good demonstration of democracy at work, because Mark Kenny seems to have kept the agenda a secret, and everyone is too easily swayed by everyone else so that they reach a rather predictable consensus. They discuss the biggest backflip (Morrison on EVs), the most effective political leader (Matt Canavan), the maddest thing in Trump’s America (6th January attack on the Capitol) and the most hopeful development (the rise of Independents).
History of Rome Episode 97 The Fall of Hercules. What’s Hercules doing here? you may wonder. Well, it was just one of the delusions of grandeur that Commodus indulged in, and he ordered statues of himself to be made decked out in a lion’s skin, carrying a club. There were two assassination attempts against Commodus and finally the second one was successful, carried out in his bath by his wrestling partner Narcissus after his lover’s attempt to poison him failed. Mike Duncan goes into more detail about Commodus’ predilection for gladiatorial contest – something really low-class and particularly bloodthirsty when he was involved, not against fellow gladiators (whose surrender he accepted) but against exotic animals and disabled people. And so just as Nero wrecked the Julio-Claudian dynasty; Domitian wrecked the Flavian dynasty; and now Commodus drove the Antonine dynasty straight into the wall.
Emperors of Rome Episode LXXVII Such was the End of Commodus reinforces the almost inevitability of Commodus’ assassination what with the ongoing perverse bloodbath in the colloseum and endless purges of the senate. No wonder they got him in the end, and that was the end of the Antonines.
This is the last of Dr Rhiannon Evans’ podcasts on the Emperors chronologically, because the series is moving chronologically out of her area of expertise. So she’s handing the Emperor part over to Dr Caillan Davenport from Macquarie University, while she goes back with some social history.
So, faced with a little hiatus, I backtracked to listen to Episode CLIII – Livia (with Sian Phillips) because I’m just about finished watching I, Claudius. This is a reply of episode XXV (from 2016), followed by an all new interview with Sian Phillips who played Livia in The BBC’s ‘I Claudius’ in 1976. Dr Evans is quite fond of Livia, despite the calumnies that the author of I, Claudius mounts against her. It was interesting to hear Sian Phillips speak of I, Claudius as “a play”. The episodes were filmed consecutively, each taking about 3 weeks.
Then all of a sudden I found myself in a series about the Empresses of Rome. I thought that I´d follow it through until I catch up with whoever comes after Commodus. I backtracked a bit to Episode CLII The Roman Empress where Dr Rhiannon Evans spoke generally about the role of the Empress in the Roman Empire. Basically, if her husband had a failed reign, then she would be blamed. Women were more attached to their father’s family than their husbands, and so they would be pushing their own family’s interests. Their most important qualities were chastity, fidelity, fecundity and being dutiful. Divorce was very easy.
Which leads of course to Messelina, who according to Tacitus, Pliny and Juvenal (and hence Robert Graves in I, Claudius) was neither chaste, loyal nor dutiful. In Episode CLIV – Messalina Dr Evans notes that all the sources are hostile, and she doesn’t really believe that Messelina did everything she was accused of. However, even if the facts are exaggerated, it is obviously code for highly inappropriate behaviour. Sex workers were the lowest of the low, and for Messelina to want to be a sex worker would be incomprehensible (and if you have seen I, Claudius, the number of men is 25). And Robert Graves, as Dr Evans points out, wanted to rehabilitate the reputation of Claudius, and what better way than to traduce Messelina.
Agrippina gets two episodes, featuring Dr Emma Southon (Historian and author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore).Episode CLV – Agrippina, Wife of Claudius points out that Agrippina was linked to four emperors: she was Augustus’ grand-daughter, Germanicus’ daughter, Claudius’ wife and Nero’s mother. Dr Southon has a fairly negative view of Claudius, arguing that Agrippina was a strong leader in her own right, fierce in her protection of her family, and it was she who made Claudius look good. This all fell apart in Episode CLVI – Agrippina, Mother of Nero when Nero ascended to power after the death of Claudius, in which Dr Southon accepts Agrippina played an active part. Her first mistake was to bring back the philosopher and advisor Seneca, who rewarded her patronage by advising Nero to sideline her. Nero knew that Agrippina was popular, so he couldn’t just kill her off. So it had to look like an accident: her roof fell in, the boat she was travelling in collapsed and when all else failed he accused her of treason and she ended up stabbed. Interestingly, Agrippina actually wrote her own autobiography (so Claudius wasn’t the only family historian) but only two segments remain. Overall, Dr Southon sees Agrippina as an agent of stability, and argues that Claudius wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did without her.
Domitia was princess of the Julio-Claudians, and ended up married to the tyrant Domitian. Episode CLVII – Domitia features Dr Trudie Fraser (Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne). It’s a hard act to follow Messelina and Agrippina, and Domitia mainly kept her head down, after having experienced many purges and deaths. Dr Fraser rejects the hypothesis that Domitia was involved in Domitian’s assassination, arguing that it would have been too dangerous for her. The written sources are largely silent about her, and we are reliant on coins and portraits. Nonetheless, these show us the way that the Emperor wanted the Empress to be portrayed, which is an interesting perspective.
Twenty Thousand Hertz. The Gift is an old 2017 episode from Twenty Thousand Hertz that was featured by this week’s ‘History This Week’. Now- pay attention because you’ll need this one day in a trivia quiz- “The horse eats no cucumber salad”. These were reportedly the first words transmitted through electronic reproduction by Johann Philipp Reis in 1861 some thirteen years before Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. On Christmas Eve 1906 morse code operators were warned to get ready to take a message, and over the airwaves came the sound of ‘O Holy Night’ through Reginald Fessenden’s work on radio broadcasting. But the emphasis of this program is on Amar Bose – yes, he of the Bose speakers- whose father emigrated to America from India, and who worked at MIT on a range of sound technologies. He was frustrated by the business practice of buying up (but not using) patents and the short-termism of many companies. So he developed his own company and gifted it to MIT so that it can maintain its emphasis on research and development. This podcast is supported by Bose, and despite the presenter’s claims to the contrary, it does come over as one long advertisement for Bose but it’s still a good story.
Travels Through Time In this episode, Journey into Deep London: Tom Chivers 62AD author Tom Chivers, who wrote London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City takes a psycho-geological approach to London (which has been studied many,many times before). He chooses 62 AD as ‘his’ year, but it’s all a bit arbitrary because his book is far more about geology, and its effect on development, rather than human actions in recorded history. His three episodes were: a walk along the river Walbrook; a walk through the marshy wetlands of the “Westminster Delta” and the burial and later discovery of Harper Road Woman, a Romano-Brit whose skeleton was dug up in Southwark. I live on the other side of the world, so I was not familiar with many of the places he talks about, but a Londoner would really enjoy this, I think.
Sweet Bobby. The Guardian chose this as their top podcast for 2021. Sweet Bobby is a six-part true crime podcast about Kirat, a successful marketer and DJ who embarks on a relationship with Bobby, the brother of a former boyfriend of a cousin. Within the London Sikh community, everyone knows everyone and she has a tumultuous relationship with Bobby, only to find that she is the victim of a ‘catfishing’ scam. This was very drawn out- I could have read it much faster- but it was good for listening while on a very l-o-n-g trip to the Mornington Peninsula by public transport.